Most people I know travel to Pittsburgh for a Steelers or a Pirates game, but I’ve been longing to go there to see Clayton, the Gilded Age home of Henry Clay Frick.
Ten years ago, I checked out a copy of The Henry Clay Frick Houses: Architecture, Interiors, Landscapes in the Golden Era, by Martha Frick Symington Sanger. I was enthralled with the story of Mr. Frick, who attended a 10-week preparatory program at Otterbein College, began his career in a Pittsburgh department store, and later became Andrew Carnegie’s business partner. Mr. Frick became a millionaire, due to his success as a pioneer in the coke industry, in which mined coal was baked to produce coke, an essential part of the process of making iron and steel. I loved looking at photographs of the handsome Mr. Frick; his pretty wife, Adelaide; their children, Childs, Martha, Helen and Henry, Jr.; and their dog, Brownie. I was aghast when I read that two-year-old Martha accidentally ingested a pin, suffered a terrible four-year decline, and died in 1891. But most of all, I was taken with the beauty of their Pittsburgh home, hoping I’d be able to see it in person someday. I finally toured Clayton a week ago, reveling in every moment of what just might be one of the best historic house visits I’ve made.
Mr. Frick purchased the 11-room Italianate house for $25,000 in 1882 as a belated wedding present for his wife. He named it Clayton, in honor of his commonly used name. In 1891, he hired architect Frederick J. Osterling to enlarge it to a 24-room chateau-style mansion with turrets and a balcony. The Fricks lived at Clayton until they moved to New York City in 1905; however, they left Clayton almost totally intact, returning a few times each year, especially at Christmas. Helen returned to Pittsburgh in 1981 and lived at Clayton until her death at age 96 in 1984. Helen willed Clayton to the city, and it opened in 1990 to the public after a four-year, $5.8 million restoration project. Today, the house is shown as it would have looked in 1900, with more than 10,000 objects and 93 percent of its original furnishings intact. Archival photographs of Clayton, Mr. Frick’s thorough documentation of invoices, and original samples helped craftsmen restore the home.
Docents play a big part in a historic house museum visit, and our tour guide at Clayton was superb. Dressed in a suit and tie, a well-spoken historian named Philip Weber introduced us to the Fricks, their home, and the Pittsburgh they knew. Exuding knowledge and enthusiasm for his subject, Philip led us through Clayton’s magnificent rooms, pointing out one interesting thing after another.
In the entrance hall, Philip called our attention to its frieze made of Lincrusta-Walton, a thick embossed paper finished to resemble tooled leather. Moving into the reception room, the first room that the Fricks’ visitors entered, Philip passed around reproduction fabric samples of the gold damask on the walls and the room’s green and gold velvet curtains. He pointed out Mr. Frick’s first recorded purchase for what would become his renowned art collection, Landscape with River, an oil painting by George Hetzel of a scene in southwestern Pennsylvania. A posthumous life-sized marble bust of Martha that sculptor Orazio Andreoni created for Mr. Frick in 1893 sat before a lace-curtained window.
We crossed the hall and entered the parlor, with its sumptuous embossed red velvet wall coverings, including a burgundy velvet frieze embroidered with silver thread and mother-of-pearl sequins. A red silk damask fringed Turkish ottoman sat in the center of the room, while red velvet curtains frame the windows and white lace curtains cover the glass. Helen’s Steinway piano is opposite the mantel, on which sits a clock and pair of candelabra that Mr. Frick purchased from Tiffany & Co. for $850 in 1881, when he was a 31-year-old bachelor living at the Monongahela House, a residential hotel in Pittsburgh. Made from onyx and gilt bronze, the Louis XVI-style pieces are decorated with putti and festoons of flowers and leaves and are thought to have been imported from France.
The magnificent dining room featured a large Richardsonian Romanesque arched fireplace, an embossed leather frieze, silver-plated light fixtures fitted for both electric and gas, mahogany furniture with tooled leather seats, Celtic motifs on the woodwork, and velvet draperies appliqued with tent-stitch slips, similar to the one I created to support Winterthur’s “With Cunning Needle” exhibition. The table was set with Persian blue gilded Mintons porcelain dessert plates with Oriental motifs, Gorham silverware and yellow damask silk napkins embroidered with Mrs. Frick’s monogram.
Next, Philip showed us the family’s collection of Limoges china; their everyday dishes, patterned with shamrocks; and the china used in “Westmoreland,” Mr. Frick’s railroad car. In the kitchen, Philip tested our knowledge of culinary tools by showing us a scoop that formed ice cream into an inverted cone.
Custom-made “HCF” monogrammed wooden chairs with patterned leather seats, a matching high chair and a sideboard in the Eastlake style were the highlights of the breakfast room. Walls were decorated with aluminum leaf, a popular choice for interior walls and ceilings of the day. A Gorham silver servant’s bell in the shape of a Dutch girl rested on the table. In this room, Mr. Frick played poker with the Mellon brothers and George Westinghouse on Thursday evenings.
As we climbed the stairs to the second floor, I spotted the “Four Ladies of Literature” stained glass windows on the landing. Installed in 1902, the windows depict Miranda, from Shakespeare’s The Tempest; Isabella, from Keats’ The Pot of Basil; Marguerite from Goethe’s Faust; and Madelaine, from Keats’ The Eve of St. Agnes.
Upstairs, we admired the original wall stenciling, mahogany furniture, and tiger and bird’s-eye maple woodwork in Mr. Frick’s bedroom. We saw the needlepoint slippers that he brought home from a trip to Mexico, and several portraits of his family, including more posthumous portraits of Martha.
Mrs. Frick’s bedroom contained carved walnut furniture in the Eastlake Anglo-Oriental style, crimson brocade draperies from France, red painted walls, and a framed composite photograph of the Fricks’ children, precisely labeled in her own hand. Passing through her bathroom, we admired the original hand-stenciled irises, rushes and grasses on the ceiling, and her blue velvet gown with an 18-inch waist, on display in a walk-in closet.
In Helen’s room, a painted mural of lilacs, roses, chrysanthemums and morning glories adorned the walls. Hummingbirds, bluebirds, butterflies and clouds were painted on the ceiling. Her room had three beds: one for her; one for her governess; and one for her dolls. French dolls dressed like a shepherd and shepherdess rested on a chaise longue.
The Fricks read, played board games, and wrote letters in the library and sitting room. These spacious, connecting rooms were furnished with a mix of decorative arts objects, including a Rookwood pottery vase, an English cameo engraved glass vase and a Doulton Art Noveau vase. These oak-paneled rooms had a coffered ceiling, parquet floors, silk damask curtains, stenciled and painted wall fabric, and Turkish-style divans. Here, you can see souvenirs from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago; Claude Monet’s Bords de la Seine á Lavacourt, which Mr. Frick purchased in 1901; a trompe l’oeil still life by William Michael Harnett; and an oil painting by Childs that hangs over his mother’s desk. Before we returned downstairs, we admired the Blue Room, a guest room where President Theodore Roosevelt napped after the eight-course lunch the Fricks had for him during his visit to Pittsburgh on July 4, 1902.
We ended our tour in the front porch, which was added in 1892 and enclosed in 1899 as a winter garden. Standing on the mosaic tile floor decorated with a fleur-de-lis pattern, we listened as Philip played a Beethoven waltz on Mr. Frick’s Welte Style 6 concert orchestrion for us. Standing 12 feet tall, the orchestrion weighs two tons and was manufactured by M. Welte and Söhne of Freiburg, Germany. Using the same technology as a player piano, the orchestrion relies on large paper music rolls to imitate orchestral sounds in arrangements of multiple instruments. A 52-note musical scale includes 294 pipes for trumpet, trombone, flute and piccolo, as well as a triangle, a snare drum, a bass drum with cymbal, and a kettle drum.
Encouraged by Andrew Carnegie, Mr. Frick purchased the orchestrion for $5,000 in 1893 and installed it in the front parlor to provide musical entertainment for his dinner guests. Originally, it was powered by two large weights hanging on cables that powered the music roll frame and pumped the bellows. Once one of the weights reached the floor, it had to be raised again by turning a ratcheted hand-crank arrangement. Having to wind up the orchestrion frequently must have been a chore, so it was converted to electric operation in 1904.
One of only four No. 6 orchestrions that remain, Mr. Frick’s orchestrion was restored in 1991. Orchestrion Favorites from the Frick is an hour-long CD that features 15 popular and classical tunes played by the Frick orchestrion. Click here to hear the orchestrion play the Dessus et Dessous Galopp.
After we left Clayton, we stopped in the working greenhouse modeled after one that Mr. Frick commissioned in 1897. That same year, the Fricks built a playhouse, complete with miniature furnishings, a bowling alley and a darkroom. Inside the playhouse, Childs and the Clayton Cadets, a team of neighborhood boys who wore Civil War-style military uniforms, practiced before marching in local parades. Outside the playhouse, a groundskeeper was preparing to plant a kitchen garden, where vegetables are grown for serving in the café.
Located in Pittsburgh’s Point Breeze neighborhood, Clayton is part of the Frick Art & Historical Center. Besides Clayton, the center is also home to the Frick Art Museum, which Helen built in 1970 so that the public could enjoy her collection of paintings, furniture, sculpture and the decorative arts from the 12th through 18th centuries. The complex also includes a car and carriage museum, where turn-of-the-20th century cars and carriages – including some owned by the Frick family – tell the story of Pittsburgh’s role in the development of the automotive industry.
It’s a good thing that taking photographs is not permitted inside Clayton, because I would have been snapping shots of everything. To give you an idea of what Clayton looks like inside, watch this video from the Frick Art & Historical Center.
Now I’m anxious to see Mr. Frick’s New York City mansion, on Fifth Avenue and East 70th Street, which today is the home of The Frick Collection. Sixteen permanent galleries present artworks by Holbein, Titian, El Greco, Constable, Vermeer, Van Dyck and Rembrandt, among others; Chinese porcelain vases and Italian bronzes; and a room devoted to Fragonard’s large wall paintings of The Progress of Love, 18th century French furniture and Sèvres porcelain. To learn more about Mr. Frick, his New York City home, and his art collection, watch this new orientation film for The Frick Collection.
To read more about Clayton, see “The Frick Family’s Clayton House,” an article by Susan Mary Alsop in the December 1990 issue of Architectural Digest, and “The Fricks at Home,” an article by Jill Connors in the April 1992 issue of Americana. Books about Clayton include The Henry Clay Frick Houses: Architecture, Interiors, Landscapes in the Golden Era, by Martha Frick Symington Sanger; Clayton, The Pittsburgh Home of Henry Clay Frick: Art and Furnishings, by Kahren Jones Hellerstedt; A Museum of the Gilded Age: Frick Art & Historical Center, by Mary Brignano; and Clayton Days: Picture Stories by Vik Muniz for Very Little Folks.